Potbelly or Subway?

Is there a qualitative difference between Lake Street's two sub sources

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By David Hammond

Coming back from a workout at FFC, I grabbed a quick bite at Potbelly, the sub sandwich franchise that moved in where Barbara’s Bookstore used to be. I’ve bemoaned this sub source as an example of how our local character is being sapped by cookie cutter franchise operations which, though they may serve tolerable food, fail to reflect the unique personality of our village.

Potbelly is a convenient place to stop for fuel, staffed by friendly people, talking a green agenda, and serving food that is perfectly inoffensive.

Years ago, I visited the Potbelly at the corner State and Lake in Chicago. As mentioned in previous columns, at Lake and Marion, Oak Park will soon have exactly the same three-way franchise configuration as at that busy Loop corner. Like I say, our village is getting more generic and less individual, more like other places and less like ourselves. Maybe that's inevitable; it is, I believe, certainly lamentable.

On that first visit, Potbelly’s Italian sandwich seemed a pale reflection of the marvelous Italian subs I’ve had at Riviera (322 N. Harlem, Chicago) and Alpine (3538 W. North, Elmwood Park). Both these non-franchise, small family operations offer food that is somewhat more expensive, but not by much, and they create true gems of handcrafted sandwichery.

Last week at Potbelly, I had the Turkey Breast with Swiss Cheese and it was…nothing much, really. I asked for tomato, lettuce and onion, and was told that because they source tomatoes locally, they didn’t have any that day. They did, however, have cucumbers (in season?). 

Turkey is a challenging meat to make interesting. Regarding this Potbelly sandwich, it’s hard to imagine a more vacant bite. I had to look a long time (really, like 30 seconds) to find the Swiss cheese, which was not detectable by taste alone. The big roll of meat in the roll was aggressively flavorless.

Still, I admire the effort Potbelly is making, and they at least talk the locavore talk, recycle furniture from antique stores, and generally try to be a healthier alternative than some fry-oriented fast food places.  They’re also making a good faith effort to reflect the village environment with vintage pictures and signage, so there’s that. I left with a full belly and a dissatisfied palate, but what the hell did I expect? Maybe I'm being too hard on this place.

Anyway, walking home, I passed Subway and thought, well, Potbelly seems a cut above this more commonly seen source for the long sandwich, and they use what seems more and better meat mounted on bread that’s not quite so squishy.  Perhaps, reluctantly, I should offer Thanksgiving for my turkey sub from Potbelly.

Do you prefer Potbelly or Subway?  Or is there really not much difference between the two? Do you have a favorite sandwich at either Potbelly or Subway that you think is worth checking out?

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Reader Comments

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David Hammond from OakPark.com/Dining/Blogs  

Posted: March 8th, 2011 8:12 AM

Subway knocks McDonald's from restaurant throne: http://chicagobreakingbusiness.com/2011/03/subway-passes-mcdonalds-as-worlds-largest-restaurant-chain.html Let us not become too smug that at least we don't have a McDonald's on our main street.

David Hammond from OakPark.com/Dining/Blogs  

Posted: March 2nd, 2011 10:15 AM

Potbelly is comparable with Cosi or Bruegger's, Peter. I don't mean to food-snob these places: they are what they are. What they are, tho, is of limited culinary interest, and I recognize that they're not trying to be anything more than, as you say, fast food franchises. What I lament is we have these places rather than the smaller one-offs I mentioned that offer distinctive, flavorful (and only slightly less fast) foods. With kids, it's another issue.

Peter Traczyk from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: March 2nd, 2011 10:01 AM

I love Potbelly. I get the Italian or occasionally the Wreck, and I can find things my kids will eat. I don't really understand zinging them from the foodie perspective. It's fast food, and they put out a product right up there with the nearby burger place, bagel place and the soon-to-close sandwich shop across the street. I'm thrilled they came to Oak Park and I know I'm not the only one that welcomes new businesses - franchised or not.

David Hammond from OakPark.com/Dining/Blogs  

Posted: March 2nd, 2011 12:29 AM

I've had Halsted Street Deli food, Fred, and I can't say it seemed much better than Potbelly's. However, I haven't eaten extensively at either place, and it's my hope that even at joints that seem like nothing more than pedestrian fuel stops, there's something delicious hiding somewhere on the menu. Do you have a favorite sandwich at Halsted Street Deli?

Fred tamburino from Oak Park   

Posted: March 2nd, 2011 12:02 AM

The sandwich I had was the worse Chicken salad I ever tasted, there was nothing in the sandwich and It was way overpriced, Wait until the Halsted Street Deli Opens across the street they have great food and huge sandwhiches! The vending machines serves better sandwhiches!

WrigleyFielder from Oak Park  

Posted: March 1st, 2011 11:56 AM

Potbelly service in Oak Park has serious issues.On 3 visits slow orders & wrong order & cold order for "hot" sandwich(!) & dining room is like a closet. Potbelly on North Ave in Northlake, Harlem Ave in Norridge & State Street in Loop know what they're doing. Never had any problems at Lake Street Subway so that's my sandwich choice for Oak Park from here on out.

Bruce DeViller  

Posted: February 28th, 2011 8:30 PM

What? The Trader Joe's closed!?

denny DeJordy  

Posted: February 28th, 2011 7:38 PM

What I would love to have is grocery store in the middle of town. What? We used to have one? But that vacant lot is so much better. Like many people, I cannot wait until I can sell my place and get out of this tax hellhole.

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